After years of struggle at Hastings Racecourse in east Vancouver, there were hopes for recovery this summer with the success of horse jockey Mario Gutierrez and a lease extension from the city.
But the most recent report from racecourse owner Great Canadian Gaming shows that track revenues continue to slip. According to its Nov. 7 third-quarter report, racetrack revenues are down $2.5 million, or 22 per cent, from last year at this time. These figures include both of the company’s B.C. racecourses, Hastings Racecourse and Fraser Downs in Surrey.
Those dismal results add more urgency than ever to the company’s and the province’s efforts to figure out what to do about horseracing, an industry that provides 3,600 full-time jobs in B.C., contributes more than $350 million to the province’s economy, and has a long history in Vancouver.
Great Canadian vice-president Howard Blank refused to comment on the financial statement.
Earlier this month, Hastings Racecourse released a press release saying that money spent on wagers had increased five per cent this year.
“Live wagering was up relative to 2011,” said Brian Butters , director of racing sustainability for the BC Horse Racing Industry Management Committee. “Generally speaking, it was a good season.”
But live wagering is only a tiny fraction of overall revenues at Hastings.
Where does the money go?
Of all revenue streams at racecourses, gambling that has nothing to do with horse-racing generates the lion’s share. According to Great Canadian’s report, gambling brings in almost half of the income at its two B.C. racecourses.
In 2004, the province and city agreed that Great Canadian could install 600 slot machines at Hastings Racecourse as an effort to support the struggling track. Each year, the province subsidizes the horseracing industry by giving track operators a portion of revenues from the slots.
As for revenues from wagers on actual horseracing, track owners in B.C. make their money in two ways. Three-quarters of betting revenue is from wagers on races that are broadcast from all over the world. Wagers on live races only account for one quarter of all betting revenues.
“Live racing is such a small part of the financial picture,” said Butters. As for wagering on broadcast races, “[it] hasn’t been as strong as it has in the past.”
A struggling industry
Financial struggles in the horseracing industry aren’t new. Over the years, attendance at horseracing events across North America has dropped. In 2009, the province set up the B.C. Horse Racing Industry Revitalization Initiative to find solutions to rejuvenate the ailing sector.
“There really are a couple of generations that didn’t take part in horse racing,” said Butters. A big part of the industry’s plan to improve horseracing in B.C. is to attract younger audiences to the sport.
Superstar jockey Mario Gutierrez played a big part in attracting those audiences this summer. Just one win short of the Triple Crown, he drew large crowds and brought worldwide attention to Hastings Racecourse.
But the 2011 Horse Racing Industry Business Plan said that although marketing efforts contributed to increased attendance, “customer retention poses a challenge given that the quality of the food and facilities at Hastings Park are not impressive.”
Gamblers in Metro Vancouver have a number of glamorous new casinos to chose from – the Edgewater Casino, the River Rock, and Grand Villa. By contrast, Hastings Racecourse is an aging facility on Vancouver’s east side.
The horseracing revitalization committee is preparing to release a five-year plan early in the New Year with suggestions on how to rejuvenate the industry.
“At the end of the day,” said Shane Simpson, MLA for the area “there has to be a some sense of how do you keep the horse industry itself going – which of the investments will allow the breeders and the trainers to do their work and to keep the horses in the circuit.”